Neymar, Messi, Bale and Ronaldo Watch

Jason Pettigrove@@jaypetti1971Contributor IOctober 19, 2013

Neymar, Messi, Bale and Ronaldo Watch

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    The week before the first El Clasico of the season, we were given the chance to assess the various merits of that game's expected protagonists Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Neymar.

    Real Madrid enjoyed home advantage against a Malaga side managed by ex-Madrid player/manager Bernd Schuster, whilst Tata Martino's Barcelona travelled to Pamplona for their fixture against Osasuna.

    Would any of the four players have a direct influence on the outcome of either game, or would they get left in reserve for the "big one" next week?

    Let's take a look.



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    Thank goodness for Neymar.

    The young Brazilian produced a stunning performance at El Sadar.. What a way to prepare oneself for one's first ever Clasico.  

    From the first moment he was given the ball, he threatened. Starting on the left, he routinely moved inside at every given opportunity, his dribbling skills and incisive movement a pleasure to witness.

    If anything, his teammates were just not on the same wavelength.

    On a number of occasions when all of the hard work had been done by the youngster, chances were not taken. Many times we saw a sublime ball played to the overlapping Martin Montoya only for the defender to waste every opportunity.

    Montoya almost returned the compliment on 52 minutes with a slide-rule pass that had just a little too much weight on it for Neymar to poke home. It would've been just reward for the Brazilian's industry.

    Prior to this game, there had been much debate recently on whether he is a "diver" or not, and his reputation is perhaps preceding him. On another occasion, the 12th-minute challenge on him might have led to a penalty, for example.

    The youngster took a constant battering throughout, and his growing maturity was there for all to see. Across the 90 minutes, he was easily Barca's standout performer. He is getting better with each passing game.

    He arrives at El Clasico in the best possible form, and alongside a fit and firing Messi, that is a worry for Los Blancos.

Lionel Messi

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    In light of the two important upcoming fixtures over the next seven days, Tata Martino made a number of changes to his Barcelona lineup.

    He resisted the temptation to start with the returning Lionel Messi, a decision he may live to rue given the outcome of the match.

    In truth, Osasuna's superb defensive performance denied Messi the room he needed to make a difference. In the 23 minutes he was on the pitch, it was like watching bees to a honey pot, with three, four or five opponents restricting his every move.

    The only shot he had of any note was 12 minutes from time, an effort that was dragged wide and was, perhaps, in keeping in the rest of the match as a whole.

    A week's training and a Champions League match against AC Milan should ensure his sharpness for the Clasico next weekend. 

Gareth Bale

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    The world's most expensive player was left on the bench by Carlo Ancelotti following his pedestrian return to fitness and perhaps with one eye on next week's Clasico against Barcelona.

    Gareth Bale began warming up on 36 minutes, yet it would not be until the 75th before he made his bow, a chorus of approval ringing around the Santiago Bernabeu as he emerged from the dug-out. 

    With Alvaro Morata making way, Bale set up in the left-sided position that Cristiano Ronaldo had worked in throughout to that point. Ronaldo himself replaced Morata in the centre. Goalscorer Angel Di Maria stayed right.

    It didn't take long for Bale to get involved. A lovely weighted ball for the flying Di Maria deserved a better finish than the dramatic dive from the Argentine as he overran the ball looking for a free-kick, which was earned.

    Di Maria himself left the field shortly after, so Bale switched to the right to allow Jese Rodriguez to patrol the left channel for the final 10 minutes.

    In truth, Bale wasn't really given too much time to have an influence on this game, yet he still managed to prove decisive at the death. In the final minute, a driving run into the box and tumble inside it led to a penalty claim which looked tenuous at best.

    The official pointed to the spot to leave Ronaldo the opportunity to put the game beyond doubt. That he did, sending Willy Caballero the wrong way. It was tough on Malaga's No. 1, who had been in inspired form all evening.

    A 15-minute cameo from Bale doesn't really give us much to judge him on. There was an expectancy each time he had the ball, and he kept it simple by and large. 

    The acid test will come next week.

Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Cristiano Ronaldo started this one on the left side of a front three including Di Maria and Morata. But he found himself in each of the striking positions inside the first five minutes, drifting across the front line and working space inside Malaga's two disciplined banks of four.

    We didn't have to wait long for his first meaningful contribution.

    Just seven minutes in, the Portuguese made space beautifully as he cut in from the left and unleashed a curling shot that had Willy Caballero beaten all ends up.

    Only the upright denied Ronaldo what would've been the game's opening goal. The skill and execution were certainly worthy of a score. Twice again within the first half-hour, Ronaldo came close, man of the match Caballero up to the task on each occasion.

    During the latter part of the half, and in what we are likely to see test Barcelona next week, the speed with which Madrid's No. 7 outpaced the visiting defence was stunning. It's a shame that his histrionics when losing the ball rather spoiled the moment.

    Within 30 seconds of the restart, Di Maria’s hopeful ball was nothing more than an angled cross for Ronaldo to try and get some purchase on. His movement unsettled Caballero, who lost the flight of the ball and allowed it to nestle in the bottom corner. 1-0 Madrid.

    Try as he might for the next 44 minutes, Ronaldo just couldn't get his name on the score sheet despite his very best efforts. Caballero was in inspired form, never better than a stunning save from a trademark Ronaldo set piece on 72 minutes.

    A contender for miss of the season isn't something you would expect from Madrid's main man. But on 82 minutes, he had one of those moments to forget. Unmarked and inside the six-yard box, Ronaldo received a great pass from Jese. But with Caballero stranded, Ronaldo's first touch inexplicably let him down and a poor second touch allowed the keeper to save. It was an incredible miss.

    Not to be denied, he buried his penalty chance in injury time, and on this form Barcelona should be fearful.